On Monday, the former Big East Conference’s complete makeover became official, as the new American Athletic Conference, billing itself as simply “The American”, and the new Big East both became official conferences. It is the latest of many realignments that has reshaped the NCAA landscape, but the first that will result in a powerful conference driven by basketball rather than football.
The membership of the American is still not quite settled yet. Cincinnati, UConn, and South Florida are former Big East teams joining the American on a permanent basis, while Louisville and Rutgers, also formerly of the old Big East, will be members for only the 2013-14 season before departing for the ACC and Big Ten, respectively. Temple, a Big East member last year for just football, joins Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, and SMU, all departed Conference USA (which subsequently underwent drastic membership changes of its own) and joined the new conference. They will be joined in 2014 by East Carolina, Tulane, and the University of Tulsa, also all from C-USA, and, in 2015, the Naval Academy in football only.
Though the American Athletic Conference is officially barely off the ground, it immediately faces some serious questions about its future. While the old Big East wasn’t exactly considered a powerhouse conference in football, it will need its members to step up immediately. The American will be an automatic qualifying BCS conference for this season only, so having a worthy representative in one of the BCS bowl games can go a long way towards boosting the conference’s reputation before being demoted from the BCS ranks in 2014. Louisville could be a top-ten preseason team and, in their one year in the conference, may be the best hope for making an immediate splash. Otherwise, for a conference that will feature only one team that finished in the top 40 in attendance last year (Louisville) and a broadcasting deal that pales in comparison to other conferences, it may be the beginning of a long, tough road to relevance.
There will be less pressure, however, on the new Big East, which is branding itself as a basketball-first conference in an age when college football could be on the verge of massive changes. DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. Johns, Seton Hall, and Villanova will all move from the old Big East, joined by Creighton (Missouri Valley), Butler and Xavier (both from the Atlantic-10). Only Butler, Georgetown, and Villanova have FCS-level football, but the Big East will not sponsor them or any other school in the sport (those three are associate members of other conferences). Instead, under new commissioner Val Ackerman, the former president of the WNBA, the Big East will put their time, energy, and money behind basketball.
Georgetown, Marquette, and Villanova all have championship banners hanging from their rafters, and the recent success of Butler, Creighton, and Xavier in the NCAA Tournament has made them household names. Focusing on basketball doesn’t mean the conference won’t be financially successful; their deal with the upcoming Fox Sports 1 network is worth $500 million over the next 12 years with potential for more should the conference expand, and their postseason tournament, perhaps the most relevant and lucrative of all conference tournaments, will remain at Madison Square Garden for the foreseeable future. The costs of a football program have grown excessive for schools making a jump between conferences, and with those costs likely to increase as football’s safety hazards lead to bigger insurance bills, the Big East could end up demonstrating a potential model for future conferences.
The world of college sports is constantly shifting, with no signs of stopping anytime soon. Both the American Athletic Conference and the new Big East face uncertain futures, and the 2013-2014 season will go a long way in determining their success, as well as that of any conferences that make changes further down the road.